BENIN: Steady growth in private tertiary institutions

After four years steady growth in the private tertiary education sector, Benin now has 15 private institutions. Many are affiliated to universities in France, Belgium and Canada, and there are plans to set up satellite campuses of European universities in the West African nation.

Many would-be students who cannot gain admission to Benin's few public universities turn to the private institutions, along with those who face difficulties obtaining a visa to study abroad. Students from neighbouring Francophone countries are also applying.

Over the years, Benin has built a reputation among Francophone Africa countries as a centre of excellence in formal education. The country is known as Quartier Latin D'Afrique - a symbolic reference to the prestigious Sorbonne University located in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

For more than 30 years, Benin had only one public university - the Université Nationale du Benin with two campuses which grew into fully-fledged universities, one in Parakou in the northern province, and the other in Porto Novo in the south-east near the Nigerian border.

Despite having three public universities, many secondary school leavers who obtain the baccalaureate - the minimum condition for admission into the university system - cannot gain access.

Jean-Pierre Wilson, a director for tertiary institutions at the Ministry of National Education, said in the past four years around 200,000 candidates a year had sought admission to public universities with carrying capacities of just 30,000 students. "Consequently, there came the need to allow private tertiary institutions to flourish," Wilson declared.

The creation of private tertiary institutions in Benin coincided with political and social changes in other Francophone African countries. The political crisis in Côte D'Ivoire, which had good tertiary institutions, prompted private investments in tertiary education in Benin.

Severe student visa restrictions imposed by French embassies on candidates from countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Gabon, Cameroon, Chad and Niger also attracted students to private institutions in Benin - most of whom are the children of rich public functionaries and business people.

"Since France is gradually closing her doors to fresh students from its former colonies, those who can afford the financial responsibilities send their kids to Benin," said Susan Kpapo, an accountant in one of the private institutions.

Students require some US$4,000 a year to cover expenses ranging from tuition, books and equipment to accommodation and food. Each of the private institutions has around 1,000 students at various levels of undergraduate and postgraduate study.

There are no doctoral candidates because most students are not interested in obtaining a PhD - they are happy to move into an expanding private sector with a masters. "A doctoral degree is meant for those who want to pursue a university career," said August Agosou, a computer science lecturer at the Institut Supérieur de Management Adonai in Cotonou, the country's seat of government.

The most popular and successful private institution in Benin is the Institut International de Management. It is well equipped, attracts many local and foreign students, and has strong and diverse affiliations with well-known institutions across Europe and North America.

A major advantage of the affiliations is the willingness of multinational companies operating in Francophone Africa to recruit its graduates into managerial positions. In fact, most students in private institutions study management sciences.

There are no courses in pure and applied sciences as these require heavy investment in human resources and equipment, while courses in liberal arts and social sciences are widely taught in public universities in African countries.

Specialisation in management sciences is driven by the current realities of African economies that require people skilled in informatics and econometrics, among other things. Private institutions are equipped with infrastructure for video conferencing and e-learning, which provide opportunities for interactive sessions between lecturers in affiliated foreign institutions and students in Benin.

Through these pedagogical methods, students obtain skills and professional techniques very quickly - another reason for the success of private tertiary education in the country.